Heinrich Barth: the greatest explorer you've never heard of
Writer Steve Kemper tackles Barth in the first biography in English about the explorer who ventured into Islamic Africa.
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There was an man named Mansa Musa, the emperor of Mali, a gigantic kingdom in Africa in the 14th century. He decided to make a voyage to Mecca, and took camels laden with gold. When he got to Cairo, he spent like a crazy man and his hajj became legendary. That’s when people first heard of Timbuktu, thinking there must be a golden city there.
It was a mythic place in most people's minds. But Barth was a scientist, so he wasn't interested in the myth. He was interested in the data. He brought out so much information about what was in the market, how much things cost, what the system of government was like, who was in power.
He spent his seven months there essentially under house arrest. But he did make a number of outings under threat of death and brought back a picture of the educated people and uneducated people, and the fundamentalists and the scholars, which sounds so familiar today.
Barth said Timbuktu was a very literary place, filled with manuscripts. That was a pretty shocking idea in Europe.
Q: What did he learn about Islam?
A: Almost anything he understood was not understood in the West because we're so ignorant of Islam.
He brought back information that you could find scholars in Africa -- Islamic scholars who could you talk to you about astronomy, Aristotle, Ptolemy, music, law, theology.
He brought information about all the factions of Islam and the fanatical sects. He said it is a great religion that is controlled in some areas by fanatics and ignorant people, and it has never lived up to his potential. And by the way, neither has Christianity.
Q: Did he make a big point of that observation?
A: He made a couple quips about that, reminded people that Christianity had done some of the same things that the West had accused Islam of doing. What he said was that Islam is like any other religion: It includes great people, it includes criminals and thugs and ignorant people, and both shysters and magnificence. It's a great religion, it deserves respect.
He could quote the Koran, especially the opening prayer, which saved his life several times.
Q: Do you feel like you're restoring his reputation?
A: I really hope that this brings him to people's attention. Boy, he deserves it. He's one of the greatest explorers who ever lived. Why he's not known is a mystery and a shame, and I hope my book does a little bit to nudge him back toward the spotlight.
Q: Why is his story important today?
A: You can't help but read his story and this book without noticing how ignorant Europe was about Africa – and how ignorant we still are.
Barth had a totally idealistic view about the ability of science to dispel ignorance. I hope my book adds one little match to that flame.
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.